“How beautiful it is to do nothing, and then rest afterward!” (1)
Psychologists tell us that one of man’s greatest enemies today is boredom. Sometimes, when reading a paper or popular journal, watching television or a DVD, using an MP3 or Ipod, or just listening to the old-fashioned radio, we are confronted with the most absurd manifestations of dullness and apathy. Believe it or not, there are people who spend their time rolling around Europe in a barrel and couples who dance the Salsa for hours upon hours in order to break a record. Others seek entry into the Guinness Book of World Records by developing the stunning art of eating more ice cream than any human since the days of pre-historic man.
We common people are obviously deeply impressed that at least some geniuses have grasped the ultimate meaning of life. They have accomplished what nobody ever dreamed was humanly possible.
What is boredom? It is a disorder that has stricken our modern world as a result of our wishes being too easily and too quickly satisfied. Once the urge has been fulfilled, we immediately feel the pressure of new urges because we cannot live without them. We are like deep-sea fish. We thrive on atmospheric pressure and without it we are lost. Since western man is easily able to satisfy most of his wishes, he begins to look for absurd pursuits to satiate his urges.
It is remarkable that in the last fifty years we have transformed most beneficial occupations into anti-boredom devices. Take the case of brisk walking. This was a very healthy undertaking until we decided to turn it into a contest in which people are forced to walk harder than they are really able to. Some end up in hospital, while others commit suicide because they failed to break the record. On several occasions, it was suggested that these people be fined because while running their heads off they did not notice the flowers along the road, or the beautiful landscape. This was, however, completely rejected on the grounds that those who won the race received flowers in the end, and this time from the hands of a pretty young lady. Even more preposterous is the case of those swimmers who try to cross the channel between Calais and Dover in record time. They seem unaware of the ferry service that would get them there much faster.
All this is fine, and we would be well advised to listen to the song lyrics of a famous pop group from the sixties who, while discussing the problem of “beatle zeman” (wasting time), used to “whisper words of wisdom; let it be, let it be…” But problems begin when thoroughly bored people start disturbing their fellow men in ways that would have been unimaginable some years ago.
It has become a common experience among people seeking a quiet corner on this planet that after setting up a folding chair on a tranquil spot at the seashore or in a forest, intending to listen to the waves of the sea or the blowing of the wind, the peace is suddenly disrupted by the blasting of a CD player turned up to its maximum volume. Looking in the direction from which the noise is coming, one sees a young man lounging in his folding chair and smiling as if to say, “Go ahead. Make my day!”
His parents will say that it disturbs them as well, but they are unable to do anything about it. “But youth, of course, must have its fling!” (2) This is the well-known excuse used whenever youngsters do the totally unacceptable. It turns chutzpah into necessary therapy, required for the further development of a youngster who will otherwise be unable to become a respectable member of society. Anyone unwilling to grant him his fling is depriving the world of a future genius and deserves to suffer intense guilt feelings.
It is remarkable how many parents seem to believe that their children should indeed have their fling so as to guarantee their proper development. This is even more surprising since these very people fanatically cut the grass and bushes in their gardens, understanding that otherwise chaos would result. It never occurs to them to apply similar standards when attempting to educate their children. When they read about the wantonness of today’s youth, they simply shake their heads in dismay.
Having one’s fling should mean proving oneself, as in the German expression ausleben, which means to live out one’s potential. A particular strength people have, potentially, is to care about other human beings. One who has not used this power has not yet “flinged,” since one of the most beautiful aspects of humanness has been withheld from him.
Our sages make a very interesting point (Eruvin 65b) when they say a man’s character can be tested in three different ways: be-kiso, be-koso, uve-ka’aso – by his pocket; is he a miser or a spendthrift? by his cup; how does he hold excessive alcoholic intake? and by his temper; can he control himself when provoked? But according to one of the sages, there is a fourth test: af be-sahako – also by how he plays, i.e. how he spends his free time.
One of the great blessings of our day is that more and more young people are starting to realize there is more to life than the bowling industry. Many of them are showing a keen interest in matters of the spirit. Lectures on religion and philosophy in famous universities and other places of learning are becoming more and more popular. Young people are looking for existential meaning and a high-quality spiritual mission.
In Israel we see a large number of secular young men and women interested in studying Talmud, Midrash, and Jewish Philosophy in their attempt to understand what it means to be a Jew and what Judaism has to offer the world.
Tel Aviv is blessed with a secular yeshiva, and in the legendary IDC of Herzliyah the David Cardozo Academy was invited to run programs introducing Judaism to a highly secular campus; by now, it can barely satisfy all the demands. Learning programs are initiated everywhere.
Most interesting is the fact that young people are finding their way back to Judaism in rather unconventional ways. Official outreach programs are losing their grip on Israeli society. They are replaced by a new phenomenon: Jewish self-discovery. It is not uncommon to see young bareheaded men with long hair, earrings and tzitzith (3); others eating kosher but never entering a synagogue; young women lighting candles Friday afternoon without observing shabbath, praying with great fervor and going off to a dance party. There are even committed atheists who will enthusiastically join prayer events. And women, whose dress code perhaps leaves much to be desired, sincerely kissing mezuzoth before entering a shopping mall or gym.
Surely not all of this is a sign of maturity – no doubt in certain cases it is superstition; still, what we observe is people searching for a sense of authenticity.
It is an aversion to religious plagiarism that keeps these people out of mainstream Judaism and the conventional synagogue. By paving their own way, they develop a fresh approach to what Judaism is really all about – open to new adventures. They are keenly aware that one cannot inherit Judaism but only discover it on one’s own.
Spiritually, nothing can be worse than trying to fit these people into mainstream Judaism. The religious establishment could make no greater mistake than to interfere in this development and start giving advice. All it can do is be there to help when asked. By trying to force its views on these people, it will uproot the seeds that have been carefully planted.
What the religious establishment needs to realize is that Jewish practice itself has generally fallen victim to boredom. Rituals and prayers are often mechanical and do not touch the soul. Today, show and ceremony must be minimized in Judaism. Ceremonies are for the eye, but Judaism is an appeal to the spirit. The only biblically required ceremony in todays’ synagogue service is the blessings of the priests, and even then the congregation is asked to close its eyes!
In biblical days the prophets were astir while the world was sleeping. Today the world is astir while the synagogues are sleeping. Blessed are the young people who are waking up. It will be their task to ignite a fire in the souls of the religious establishment. May they succeed!
(1) Spanish proverb.
(2) Gilbert & Sullivan, The Mikado
(3) Fringes with the name of God knotted on each corner of a four-corner garment, which religious Jews wear under their shirts. See Bamidbar 15: 38-40